Enrico Banducci, 85; owned hungry i nightclub

Times Staff Writer

Enrico Banducci, the flamboyant San Francisco nightclub impresario whose hungry i launched political satirist Mort Sahl and played a major role in the careers of Shelley Berman, Woody Allen, Jonathan Winters and other comedians in the 1950s and '60s, has died. He was 85.

Banducci, who was hospitalized for kidney and heart problems last month, died Oct. 9 at home in South San Francisco, said his niece, Chi Chi Banducci.

A onetime concert violinist, Banducci bought the hungry i -- short for the hungry id -- in 1951 from Eric Nord, who had started and named the tiny North Beach club two years earlier.

Under Banducci, the 83-seat club in the basement of the Sentinel Building on Columbus Avenue evolved from a bohemian hangout to a showcase for folk singers, such as Stan Wilson.

But that changed when Banducci hired Sahl, his first comedian, in late 1953.

Banducci reportedly gave Sahl time to develop his new brand of political satire and encouraged him to speak his mind onstage.

"We were set free by Enrico," Sahl said last spring during the launch of "Enrico Banducci's hungry i: San Francisco's Legendary Nightclub," an exhibition at the San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum.

"He's fearless," Sahl said. "He was his own man. I stress that because he's the last one I met."

Sahl was soon drawing lines of customers around the block at the hungry i, which moved to its much larger and more famous basement location on nearby Jackson Street in the spring of 1954.

"The hungry i had become by the mid-1950s the Comedy Central of its day, the main staging area of the revolutionary movement" in stand-up comedy, wrote Gerald Nachman in his 2003 book "Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s."

A stream of new-wave comedians performed at the hungry i, including Phyllis Diller, Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce and Bill Cosby. One memorable 1963 double bill featured Woody Allen and a young singer named Barbra Streisand.

In the process, the barrel-chested, mustachioed and beret-wearing Banducci became known in the press as "The Billy Rose of North Beach," with the hungry i deemed "the most influential nightclub west of the Mississippi."

"I gave people artistic freedom, allowed them to express themselves as they wished, without any interference from me or anybody else," Banducci recalled during the exhibition's opening.

"He had an extraordinary eye for talent, and he set the standard in nightclub entertainment for 20 years," Brad Rosenstein, curator of exhibitions and programs at the San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum, said Monday.

Banducci "started three major revolutions in nightclub entertainment," Rosenstein said.

"He crafted a new style for the nightclub where bohemia met elegance," said Rosenstein, noting that Banducci "was the first to have that brick wall behind the stage, which every club now has."

"He also started satirical political comedy, which was virtually unknown before Mort Sahl. And, finally, he started the revolution in folk music, which went around the country and around the world."

The Limeliters folk group launched its career at the hungry i, which also featured the Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul and Mary; and other groups.

"He was really the first to spot many of these people -- comedians, folk singers, variety acts -- and give them a chance," Rosenstein said. "Other clubs looked at who he booked and often followed his lead."

Banducci told Nachman in a 1999 interview, "I wanted to have a club that was fair to the artist -- like a theater -- to develop and nurture talent."

For Banducci, that meant not putting up with that bane of stand-up comics: hecklers.

In Nachman's book, comedian Professor Irwin Corey recalled Banducci once reacting to audience members who interrupted his act by yelling: "Stop the show. You noisy bunch of mothers! Give 'em back their money. Have respect for the acts or don't come back here."

Nothing stopped Banducci from demanding respect for his performers. As Nachman noted, he even once "threw out an entire audience -- a Gray Line bus tour of foreigners."

He was born Harry Banducci on Feb. 17, 1922, in Bakersfield. A prodigy on the violin, he came to San Francisco when he was 13 to study music.

At 17, he was getting ready for a violin recital when he decided that Harry was an unsuitable first name for a musician. Enrico Banducci "looked more important, more Italian, yes, less Bakersfield," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in April.

In 1958, he opened Enrico's Coffee House on Broadway a few blocks from the hungry i. It was later renamed Enrico's Sidewalk Cafe, and he sold it in 1988.

At one point, Rosenstein said, Banducci had "a mini empire in North Beach" that included Mike's Pool Hall and a hamburger place called Clown Alley. He also was a part owner of the Purple Onion nightclub.

But, Rosenstein said, Banducci was the first to say that he was not a great businessman, and even at the height of the hungry i's popularity, "there were always financial problems."

The hungry i, which moved from Jackson Street to Ghirardelli Square in 1968, closed in 1970.

Banducci, who was married five times, is survived by his daughter, Allegra; and his son, Gregory. A memorial will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. Oct. 28 at Enrico's, 504 Broadway, San Francisco.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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